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66 Pounds of Pressure

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Tony stepped off the elevator and into the LCIS bull pen with a venti vanilla latte in one hand, back pack slung roguishly over the other shoulder.

McGee was already at his desk, tapping away. Typical. A light sniff told him Tim was the only fresh scent in the office. No sharp, steely tang of Ziva. No coffee-laced iron of Gibbs. Just the softer paper smell of the changeling wolf-shifter tapping away in the weak glow of his desk lamp.

"Morning, McBrown-noser. Get here early? Or have you been here all night, trying to forget your complete lack of a social life?"

"Tony." The younger agent just sighed and tilted his head in DiNozzo's general direction.

Huh.

He didn't even rise to the bait. Didn't even look up from where his eyes were glued to the screen. Must be something pretty interesting.

Quietly dropping his backpack in the chair and setting his coffee down, Tony smirked to himself as he tip-toed the few steps from his desk to McGee's.

He knew he wasn't fooling anyone. The probie may have had the less developed senses of a changeling than those, like Tony who were born shifters, but at this close range even a pup with a cold would hear and smell him coming.

Not to mention that, despite his late start as a shifter, or maybe because of it, McGee had developed a preternatural sense of his personal space.

"Don't bother, Tony," McGee said, as DiNozzo leaned over his shoulder. "It's nothing that would interest you."

"How do you know I wouldn't be interested?"

The elevator doors opened, but Tony didn't bother to look as he recognized the smooth, cool scent of the third member of their team.

"What is not interesting?" Ziva asked, striding toward her desk as if it were an enemy in need of subduing.

"Timmy was here early." Tony paused and frowned. "Or late. The exact timeline has yet to be established. Anyway, he's staring and clicking and geeking so intensely, it has to be something interesting."

McGee sighed again and finally looked up. "I missed something on the Ferranti case."

The skin pulled across Tony's forehead as he frowned in concentration. "We closed that case last week."

"I know. Gibbs asked me to look at his financials for a link to Sally Haye but I didn't find anything."

"So there wasn't a link. You're right. Not interesting."

"How often have you known Gibbs's gut to be wrong?" Ziva asked and Tim nodded along with her.

"Right. So there is a link?" Tony asked and the probie dropped his head, looking like a kicked puppy.

"Yeah." A few more clicks on his keyboard, and the screen changed. Both Ziva and Tony crowded close to look over his shoulder. After a few seconds of staring at the hieroglyphics, they exchanged perplexed glances.

"Uh, I'm sure this complex series of numbers and letters is fascinating to you, but could we get the Cliff's notes?"

"Basically, she owned the company that owns the shell company that Ferranti was using to launder the money from his arms deals."

"Great, let's go pick her up…" Tony trailed off at the down-trodden shaking of McGee's head. "I'm not going to like the next thing you're going to tell me, am I?"

"She hopped a flight to Morocco twenty-four hours after we arrested Ferranti."

"Remind me again. Does Morocco do extradition?"

"No, they do not." Ziva chimed in as McGee stared at his hands. "At least they do not have an extradition treaty with the United States."

"Right. Thought so." Tony set a heavy hand on McGee's shoulder in mock sympathy. He didn't bother to keep the amusement out of his voice. "Gibbs is going to be pissed."

"I know," the changeling answered with a sad eyed pout.

Tony briefly considered all of the possible quips he could use for this occasion, but the poor kid already looked so miserable, he decided to let it go with just one more jibe.

He opened his mouth but familiar words spoken in a familiar growl came from behind him before he could speak.

"Gear up."

Tony tried not to flinch at the sudden sound. How did Gibbs do that? Tony was a natural wolf shifter. A trained investigator. He should have heard him coming. Should have smelled him coming.

But Gibbs did it to him every time. Must be all that Marine Special Op Wolf Pack whatever training from his time in the military. Or maybe it just came from being a pack alpha.

Though, as beta, it only seemed fair that he should get some cool super power too.

"Make sure you don't forget anything," Gibbs continued as he flowed past to grab his own bag from behind his desk. "We've got a dead wolf in Colvin County."

McGee paused, squinting in thought. "Colvin County? Isn't that in the foothills of the Adirondacks?"

"Yep."

"Should I call Ducky?" Ziva asked.

"He already knows. He'll meet us at the cars."

Gibbs headed out of the bull pen without a backward glance, the team falling into step behind him. As they waited for the elevator, the brief exchange clicked in Tony's brain.

"Wait. Adirondacks? As in New York State?" All three members of the team gave him the ‘duh' look. "I mean, isn't that Taylor's pack's territory? They're the MCRT for New York."

"I believe they are tied up trying to find that serial killer stalking high profile wolves on Long Island. The Silver Spoon killer." Ziva chimed in as she filed into the tight space of the elevator.

"Bullet. The Silver Bullet killer," Tony corrected automatically.

The Israeli shifter gave him a serene smile. Not for the first time, he wondered if she screwed up idioms on purpose just to yank his chain. So to speak.

The elevator doors whispered shut told him they were on their way to bring down yet another bad guy. Or bad wolf, as the case may be.

*

Tony gripped the dash board so hard his fingers cramped as he dug in to keep himself from jerking around the front seat. Despite his best effort, Ziva had snatched the car keys and now she trailed Gibbs's Charger through morning rush hour traffic with maniacal glee.

A white blur of a van slid backward past his window, way too close and way, way too fast. His stomach twisted, protesting the breakneck speed and reckless endangerment of his partner's driving.

The sudden and sideways jerk of the car as they slid into the right lane centimeters from said white van's front bumper made him squeeze his eyes closed and try to find his happy place.

Of course, his happy place wasn't in this car. Not with Ziva's possibly homicidal driving or McGee's hang dog slump in the back seat as he tapped away on his phone. As bad as Tony's day was shaping up to be, Tim's was going much worse.

In the cold hush of the elevator McGee had filled Gibbs in on the revelations of the Ferranti case. The older wolf had simply stared at the probie with that thousand yard stare as the kid's shoulders hunched higher and higher.

Finally Gibbs had let out a short sharp breath and said, "We'll deal with that later."

Tony could have sworn he'd actually see the blood drain out of the probie, right along with any self-confidence he'd managed to scrape together. At that moment, DiNozzo was pretty sure McGee didn't have a happy place on earth he could call on. Maybe there was something in the Elf-lord realm that would make him smile.

In a rare a moment of self-aware honesty, Tony admitted his  own happy place would be in the passenger seat of the car ahead of them. Right next to Gibbs.

Sure, the driving wouldn't be any better and his stomach would still be on the verge of open revolt, but the rest of him would be more at ease. Despite the frequent growls and the head smacks, Tony felt most comfortable, most right in his skin when he was next to his alpha.

Or maybe, because of them. There was always an undercurrent of affection in the reprimands. In odd sort of way, it made him feel wanted.

Not that there was anything weird about his affection for the older wolf. He was beta. His place was at his alpha's side. So what if he'd fallen into the role almost by accident in the revolving door that had been Gibbs team and pack when Tony had first joined? He'd held onto the spot for years now. That had to mean something.

So, yeah, Tony's desire to stay close to his alpha was all about his place in the pack and had nothing to do with his occasionally flexible sexuality. Not that Gibbs wasn't sexy as hell. But four previous marriages and uncounted affairs, all with women, made it clear the team leader was s-t-r-a-i-g-h-t.

A sudden sharp jerk and squeal of tires threw Tony hard into the unforgiving plastic and metal of the door as Ziva took an unnecessarily hard turn into the airstrip the LCIS used for their private transports.

Twisting around to glare, Tony rubbed his shoulder.

"Owwww."  He drew the complaint out in a long whine.

"Sorry," Ziva said with a wrinkled nosed smile and absolutely no sincerity whatsoever. "I always forget where that turn is."

"Right."

*

By the time they got to the crime scene, Tony had nearly sweated through his expensive suit and his stomach growled loud enough for the humans waiting inside the crime scene tape to hear.

After the hair curling drive to the airstrip and the turbulent flight they were met at the airport with only one of the rental cars they had requested.  The rental agent's apologetic promise the second car would be delivered to them as soon as it became available did nothing to mollify Tony's disgust on the hour long ride to the back of nowhere, better known as the town of Verplanck, NY.

The five of them had been shoe-horned into a mid-size sedan the entire way. Tony wasn't quite sure how he'd ended up stuffed in the middle of the back seat between Ziva and McGee.  The hour long ride was even more unpleasant than his first one that morning. Especially when they turned off the nice, civilized paved road onto the rutted gravel torture track that led to a local nature trail most often used by runners and hikers.

As they jounced and jarred way to fast along the uneven ground, he couldn't decide which of his fellow agents had sharper elbows. Either way, he was going to have bruises along both sides of his ribs for hours.

They piled out of the car like a bunch of clichéd clowns but they set to work like the well-oiled team they were. After slipping on crime scene coveralls and gear, they took up necessary task without discussion. Gibbs made a bee-line for the sheriff, who looked like he was the template for every small town lawman who graced a movie screen in the 80's. Tall, broad shouldered, thirty-ish with a boyish grin. When Tony heard him introduced himself as Sheriff Andy Laverty, he had to stomp down hard on the instinct to start whistling the theme to the Andy Griffith show.

Ducky headed for the parked Colvin County crime scene van, where the coroner and his assistant waited before the three of them tromped carefully single file along a previously made path to the body. McGee grab the camera to document the scene as Tony and Ziva grabbed their cases and silently divided up the area to begin processing for any tidbit that might somehow lead them to the murderer.

As Tony worked, he kept his eyes sharp on the area in front of him and his ears wide open listening to the sounds of the forest surrounding them for anything out of the ordinary. Of course, city born and bred, Tony doubted he'd recognized any out of place sounds. That was more McScout's area of expertise.

In the background of his attention, he made note of the victim's details as the sheriff rattled them off.

"Kyle Anderrsen. 23. Address listed as Adder Valley. Son of pack alpha, Gerald Anderrsen."

Placing a numbered yellow marker next to something that might be a partially obscured shoe print, he watched Gibbs lean against a tree next to the broad shoulder sheriff with his notebook open. The knot of tension he felt was definitely not attraction. Or jealousy at the way Andy Griffith leaned closer as he talked.

Without thinking, Tony turned his head to better eavesdrop.

"…jogger spotted him sometime around seven this morning and called it in when he got back to his car. Cell service is spotty here. My coroner started doing his thing, noticed the bite and claw marks looked more shifter than regular predator. Checked his i.d., realized who he was and figured it was best to call LCIS. Didn't realize they'd send us an MCRT from D.C."

Tony snorted and averted his gaze from the teasing smile the sheriff gave Jethro as he nudged him with a shoulder. No one was close enough to hear, thankfully. At least, no one who was paying any attention to him.

Though he'd probably get a Gibbs's smack later, anyway. The older shifter seemed to notice everything.

He tried not to grumble to himself as scanned the next few inches of ground. Of course they sent an MCRT. The kid of any alpha gets whacked, you better call LCIS. If that alpha is the leader of the fifth largest pack in the US, you better expect to get one of the elite teams.

The Lupine Criminal Investigative Service was created to investigate criminal, terrorist and espionage threats to and by lupine shifters in the United States. They were meant to support local law enforcement in exactly these kinds of cases.

"Kid's a long way from home." Gibbs was a master of making a statement into a question his audience felt compelled to answer.

The sheriff shrugged, and Tony had to glance back down at his hands to hide his snarl when the movement shifted the human even closer into his alpha's personal space. And Gibbs didn't shift away.

"There's not a dominant pack or a strong alpha in Colvin County. We get a lot of lone wolves who come here for the respite. Could be he left his pack for some reason. Haven't got much on the kid yet. When I contacted LCIS, they said they had a satellite office near the kid's pack in Adder Valley.  They were going to send somebody to notify the kid's parents and get a statement. I assume you'll be hearing from your people soon."

Tony didn't need to look to know a tight frown would pulling at Jethro's mouth and furrowing his brow. His boss hated letting anyone into any part of his investigation. Not even other LCIS agents. But it couldn't be helped now.

The sound of a tinny rendition of the theme to St. Elsewhere had him glancing back to see the sheriff shrug and blush faintly as he flipped open his cell phone. Tony did not even want to know the story behind that one.

Against his better judgment, Tony's eyes remained glued to Gibbs. The older agent tucked away his notebook and took quick, ground eating strides, passing by Tony without a word. He stopped next to the body where Ducky was still bent over in his typical meticulous examination.

If Tony's eyes lingered over the strong back and drifted down to the firm ass in front of him, well, he wasn't really staring at the nice view. Low blood sugar had simply left his mind wandering in a brief zone out.

Gibbs crouched down across from Ducky, careful not to disturb the markers Ziva was setting out a few feet away.

"What've you got, Duck?"

"Looks like death by exsanguinations due to multiple lacerations. There is also some perimortem bruising to his left temple. It could indicate blunt force trauma shortly before death."

"Somebody hit him in the head before he died?"

"So it seems," Ducky nodded sadly as he stared down at the body like he was willing it to give him more answers. Then he gestured to something on the shifter's body Tony couldn't see.

"It would also explain this. He has pre-mortem bruises on his knuckles and arms."

"You think he was in a fight."

"Well, yes. But there is no evidence of defensive wounds resulting from the attack that killed him. The bites and claw marks are centered on his torso and throat. Nothing on his arms, head or face to indicate he fought back or even attempted to curl into a defensive posture. And there is no evidence I can see that he'd begun to shift to defend himself, either, though blood samples will tell us for sure."

"He was unconscious when the animal that did this attacked." It wasn't a question, but a matter of fact growl that had Ducky nodding with somber agreement.

They didn't yet know if it was a shifter or a mundane forest creature that had attacked the vic but Gibbs was right. Whoever, or whatever, had done it was indeed a mindless, conscienceless animal to viciously attack a helpless kid like that.

"Got a time of death?"

Ducky glared over the top of his glasses then huffed a breath of exasperation. "Impatient as ever, Jethro. You know I can't give you a definitive time of death until I've performed the autopsy and factored in all of the environmental and serological influences."

"Duck."

Tony could hear the fond exasperation and the underlying demand for answers. Even just staring at the back of his alpha, he had no doubt the doctor was receiving the patented penetrating stare coupled with a knowing smirk. The expression that said Gibbs always got what he wanted.

Eventually Ducky cracked. "To be honest, Jethro, I am finding conflicting evidence as to what time this poor shifter lost his life. The best I can tell you at the moment is sometime between ten p.m. and five a.m."

"That's a lot of time to cover."

"I know. Hopefully once I've finished with the full autopsy, I can give you the answers you need."

"Can you at least tell me whether we're looking for a shifter or if a normal predator was involved after someone incapacitated him?"

"Definitely a shifter. See the bite marks here."

Ducky pointed to a spot on the abdomen Tony couldn't see from his distant vantage point. The doctor carefully pushed back the shredded, bloody remains of what had once been a nice Zegna shirt.

"Too large for Canis lupus, more commonly known as the grey wolf, that was once native to this area. Unfortunately, they were hunted to extinction here in the 19th century." He put a thoughtful finger to the side of his mouth, a sure sign he was ready to go on a roll. "The last native wolf of the Adirondacks was believed to have been shot in 1893, if I recall correctly—"

"Duck." The low growl got the coroner's wandering thoughts.

But its deep timbre sent a shiver down Tony's spine and got his body's attention in a completely different way.

"Ah, yes, of course. Even if there are mundane wolves in the area, those marks were definitely made by a lupine shifter. Also, I can smell faint traces of several shifters he had incidental contact with in the past twenty-four hours, as well as an indistinct human scent. But there is a heavy scent of a shifter who he had prolonged contact with in the same time frame."

The doctor looked thoughtful for a minute and said, "I can't put my finger on it, but there is something vaguely familiar about the scent."

Gibbs leaned closer to the body to catch the scent profile Ducky was talking about. At this stage, the stench of decay was overpowering, even to a shifter's nose unless you get up close and personal. Ziva, who was closer, dropped what she was doing and leaned in as well.

Getting that profile could lead them to whoever had contact last with the victim. It wouldn't hold up in court without corroborating evidence, but knowing the scent of the suspected killer made finding him much easier.

As soon as Ziva leaned in her eyes went wide and cut sharply to Gibbs. He grimaced and nodded shortly, a gesture so abrupt and minute Tony would have missed it if he hadn't been staring at his boss.

For the sake of the case of course.

And the little flare of unease streaking through his chest was curiosity. Definitely not jealousy at the way Ziva and Gibbs seemed to communicate on a level above the rest of the team.

Gibbs with his Special Ops and Ziva with her Mossad training seemed to share a language that was inscrutable to the rest of the team. At night, when there was nothing to drown out his thoughts, Tony sometimes wondered why Gibbs hadn't yet encouraged Ziva to challenge him for the beta spot.

There was no doubt she could kick his ass in either form. And she could anticipate Gibbs's thoughts, orders and moods nearly as well as Tony. Better, sometimes, in situations like the one they were sharing now. She could be the kind of beta that Tony wanted to be. That he strived to prove he could be.

And he really wasn't going there now. Not in strange territory with an active case.

He would, however, attempt to get in on their little secret. Resolved, he started to move closer in order to get a whiff of the body for himself when the sheriff ended his call and ambled back over to the center of the crime scene.

Gibbs stood to meet him and the pinched look he'd shared with Ziva a moment before changed like quicksilver to that disarming grin he only shared with people he didn't find too useless. Tony had to bend over backwards, and not die, to get that particular look from his alpha.

The sheriff smiled back and said, "Seems there was a disturbance at the Stoddard last night. Your vic matches the description of a drunk causing some trouble."

Ducky opened his mouth to speak, but Gibbs waved him off. Tony was pretty sure Gibbs was the only person in the world who could shush Donald Mallard without paying heavy consequence later.

"The Stoddard?" Gibbs asked, pulling out his notebook once again.

"It's a local dive bar. Popular with a lot of loners. We usually get called once a weekend for a fight or drunk and disorderly, but nothing like…"  Apparently unable to find the words, he gestured to the body at their feet. "This is the first murder in Colvin County in 30 years."

Like a bull dog, Gibbs ignored the insignificant details and zeroed in on the important questions, all smiles and ease gone from his expression. "What happened at the bar last night?"

"One of my deputies' got called to a drunk and disorderly out there, just before the end of his shift. By the time he got there, the troublemaker was gone and things had settled down. Seems a drunk out-of-towner was in the bar demanding to know where he could find a hit man"

The Andy Griffith clone shrugged and settled his hands on his belt. "Around here, the loners keep to themselves mostly and keep their noses clean. But outsiders tend to have the idea that all lone wolves are criminals."

Tony flinched and took a deep breath to loosen the hard knot that formed in his throat. He remembered the years he spent as a lone shape-shifter, and could understand the local's ire.

"Some of the shifters in the bar took exception to the kid. There was a scuffle with the bartender who threw him out and the kid was long gone by the time my deputy got there."

"Why is this the first I'm hearing about this?" The words were even, clipped and spat out through clenched teeth like bullets.

For the first time, the sheriff actually took a step away from the simmering alpha. A little flare of triumph shot through Tony and he had to swallow the smirk that threatened to bloom at the wariness in Andy Griffith's eyes.

The younger lawman dropped his hands to his sides, palms open as he lowered his eyes as well. Tony wondered if it were instinctive when dealing with a bigger badass, or something he learned from years of dealing with packless wolves.

"Like I said, he was going off shift. Nothing had happened and he figured he'd write it up when he got on shift tonight. He called as soon as he heard about what was going on up here."

Tony could see Gibbs itching to the man a smack for allowing procedure to be so lax.

Instead, the alpha asked, "Where can we find the bartender?"

Tony reached for his case, anticipating the order to go do the interview.

"He lives above the bar. I'll write out the directions."

"Ziva. McGee. Go interview the bartender."

Tony was already on his feet, the words ‘on it, boss' springing to his lips when the commands penetrated his brain.

Ziva didn't seem surprised at all, snatching the directions from the sheriff's hand and heading for the car without a backward glance.  McGee stared at Tony and Tony stared back, trying to figure out what was going on. If Gibbs didn't interview a viable subject first, he always sent Tony along to do it.

"DiNozzo, take over the camera."

The sharp command broke McGee, at least, out of his frozen state. The younger agent handed over the camera with a gleeful curl of his lips.

"Here you go, Tony. I just have to finish up the southern perimeter," he said and pointed toward an area more muck and mud than solid ground.

"Great," Tony muttered to the already retreating back before he glanced down at his new Bruno Magli shoes. One would think by now he'd know better. But, for some reason, he always wanted to look his best.

And, as that thought skittered across his brain, he forced his eyes away from Gibbs and pointed the camera in the direction of today's personal hell.

*

Tim froze for a second when Gibbs said his name. It was the first time his alpha had addressed him directly since the uncomfortable conversation in the elevator that morning.

He'd been expecting to get the probie treatment for missing the financial link until it was too late. He been sure he'd have to wade through all the trash, mud and sludge in their foreseeable future. Which would still be worlds ahead of the treatment he'd have gotten for screwing up with his old pack.

And, at least with Gibbs's pack, he'd didn't have to worry about trying to hide the bruises after.

"DiNozzo, take over the camera."

He snapped out of the sideways train of thought and handed the camera off to a still slack jawed Tony. Sliding into the superior grin he'd perfected to cover a multitude of insecurities, he tossed one last jaunty comment before he hurried toward the doom that was Ziva's driving.

He'd barely shucked off the coveralls and buckled in before she had the car sailing over the bumps and gorges that passed for a road here.

Closing his eyes briefly against the nausea induced by a particularly violent landing, Tim reconsidered. Maybe this was punishment after all.

He glanced at Ziva ready to ask if she realized they weren't actually actively pursuing a suspect at the moment, but he swallowed the words.

She looked normal, with her hands loosely wrapping the wheel, eyes focused and scanning the road ahead. If you didn't know her well, she seemed the same as always. Relaxed concentration covering a readiness to spring into violent action at the slightest provocation.

But the faint lines around her mouth were a little more pronounced and there was a stiffness in her shoulders that belied her usual loose-limbed grace.

Also, the usual cold steel smell that was Ziva seemed to be tinged with a faint burnt, smoky tang.

Tim had never been all that good at identifying emotions by scent. Honestly, he was much better with computers than at reading people. Which was one of the many reasons Tony usually went on these kind of interviews, where impressions and understanding the unspoken were often more important than the facts collected.

But he was pretty sure the scent drifting from the driver's seat was anger. An old, banked anger that had been simmering for awhile.

Hesitantly, knowing he was taking his life in his hand, Tim asked, "Is everything ok, Ziva? You seem… tense."

Narrowed eyes turned on him with and unblinking stare and he had to swallow the urge to beg her to watch the road.

"I am fine, McGee."

The fine was punctuated with a sharp jerk of the wheel as she took a particularly surprising curve in the road somewhat faster than suggested speed. Showing his genius, finally, Tim forebear pointing that out.

"Right. Fine. Of course you are. What was I thinking?" He attempted to be placating but could not suppress the survival instinct to grab the handle above the door as the car shot forward with another unwarranted burst of speed.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, or at least change it, he grasped at the first subject that came to mind.

"The full moon is in a couple days. Abby is going to be upset if we don't hurry up and clear this case so the whole pack can be together." As always, it felt weird for most of the pack to be here when Abby and Palmer were several hundred miles away. "What do you think the chances are the bartender will turn out to be the killer and make it easy on us?"

Apparently it was the wrong thing to say, because the tension in her arms ratcheted up so much, he was afraid the plastic of the steering wheel would snap. And he had to exhale against the sudden, assaulting burnt smell filling the car.

Once again, she turned cold eyes on him and the silence was nearly as terrifying as her driving. Then she turned her eyes back to the road.

When she spoke, the words were soft and more sorrowful than the anger in the air implied.

"We will see what we see."

*

Silence reigned for the rest of the drive. They pulled into the parking lot of a two story building set back from the main road. The whole thing looked like it was about to be reclaimed by the woods growing wildly just yards behind the bar and the nearest sign of civilization had been a dilapidated gas station half a mile back.

The siding had once been white but was now tinged grey with age and neglect. Darkened signs that would blaze neon bright in the night hung in each window and obscured the view inside. A faded orange CLOSED sign hung haphazardly on the door.

All in all, the clichéd horror movie back country roadhouse. Tony would love it.

The wind shushing through the leaves of the trees and the hum of birds and wildlife was both soothing and ominous. Tim reached under his windbreaker to loosen his weapon in its holster as he got out of the car. On the other side of the vehicle, Ziva did the same.

The Israeli wolf led the way around back of the bar and up the stairs to the second story porch where the sheriff said the bartender lived.

She knocked with three quick, loud raps and then stepped back to wait. Tim strained his hearing until the faint sounds of movement telegraphed itself through the warm afternoon air. Next to him, Ziva cocked her head in response to the noise. When no one came to the door she let out an impatient huff and knocked again. Louder and with more intention communicated with every hard strike on the cheap wood door.

From inside, there was a low, rumbling growl of annoyance and the sound of trudging footsteps approaching the entry. The door jerked inward so abruptly that Tim actually felt the brush of displaced air move past him.

A huge, shadowed figure wearing only an unbuttoned pair of faded jeans filled the doorway and the rumbling growl swelled to a roar as the man demanded, "What the fuck do you people want?"

Tim tightened every muscle in an effort to check the instinctive urge to step back and lower his head. He'd trained himself out of that response when he started with LCIS, but occasionally he had to remind his body he was no longer an unwanted burden on the pack.

Then the large shifter's scent engulfed him.

Spice and copper.

Tim's head snapped up and he forced his eyes to focus in past the shadows and the fall of dark hair that fell smoothly to the man's chin. Sharp white teeth bared and familiar bright hazel eyes sparked something visceral deep inside Tim and he did take that step back.

His backbone straightensed and he caught himself before he takes the second step back.

Corporal Damon Werth.

Bad ass Marine who had nearly managed to take out their entire pack in one go. Werth had been innocently caught up in a bad case their team had investigated eighteen months ago. In the end, the real bad guys had been caught and Werth had been cleared of all charges. But he'd been forced to take a medical discharge from the Marines.

Now, the commando squinted against the glare of the afternoon sun and scrutinized his visitors.

"Ziva?"

His voice softened with surprise and odd pleasure.

"Yes, it's me. May we speak with you, Damon?"

Tim blinked and dragged his eyes away from Werth to stare at Ziva. He wasn't sure what surprised him the most. The echoing warmth of her voice when she spoke or that she used a suspect's given name

The moment, however, snapped him out of the frozen indecision he'd been trapped in and his heart rate started to settle back into something resembling normal.

"Sure, why the hell not?"

Werth flashed a cocky grin and turned sideways, waving her in past him. "Mi casa es su casa."

Ziva returned an answering smile and squeezed by him, no problem. When the Marine stood his ground and looked back impatiently, Tim realized he didn't plan on moving out of the way.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, he attempted to make himself as small as possible as he moved past the man in the door.

Still, Tim was forced to brush up against a disturbingly large amount of naked skin as he moved into the small apartment. The broad, chiseled chest on display, the strong, ropy arms relaxed at his side. Even the bare feet peeking out from the pale blue denim distracted Tim.

Suddenly, the irrational fear he'd felt at the sight of the shifter was fighting a very different yet equally embarrassing reaction to Werth's presence. As soon as he cleared the large body in the doorway, Tim scooted as far inside the apartment as he could get.

Werth sniffed the air and his lips curled up around the edge. His eyebrow climbed a bit and a dimple flashed in amusement as he turned back to Ziva.

"I seem to make your friend a little nervous."

"It is understandable. It took two weeks for his shoulder to heal last time."

The commando's eyes sharpened and cut back to where Tim stood.

"McGee, right? Sorry about that. Wasn't exactly myself."

Before he could think of anything to say, Werth was disappearing down a short hallway and saying over his shoulder, "Make yourselves at home."

*

A few minutes later, Tim and Ziva were seated on an ancient beige couch imprinted with scenes of deer, trees and hunting dogs. Across from them, Werth, who'd managed to acquire a tight, black t-shirt but still no socks, sat in an even older khaki armchair.

"How have you been?"

Again the concern Ziva showed for their prime suspect made Tim want to look for the pod. But not even an alien could drive with the kind of determined frenzy the Israeli shifter seemed to revel in.

The two of them spoke in soft tones about the Marine's new job and Tim took out his notebook and pen for the interview. As he sat, waiting, he couldn't help the thoughts that turned inward as he berated himself.

He'd been an LCIS agent for several years, now. He'd had training. Had faced hundreds of perps. Armed and deadly suspects and terrorist and trained killers.

But one look, one growl from Damon Werth and Tim had regressed back to the skinny, sixteen year old geek cowering from a bully.

And that was the problem, in a nutshell. Werth reminded Tim, at least superficially, of his former foster brother.

Pure alpha material. Strong. So much stronger than an average wolf shifter and completely outclassing a changeling. Smart. But the kind of smart that hid behind casual arrogance until it snuck up and bit you.

Gorgeous.

But Tim wasn't going there. He'd learned from Lathe that pretty packaging hid nasty surprises. His foster brother had been beautiful and had possessed a cruel streak a mile wide.

But that was in the past, damn it. He'd grown up since then. Learned to defend himself. Found a new pack. One that accepted him. If he felt a constant need to prove his worth as a wolf, and as an agent, that was his problem.

He worried about being a disappointment. Worried he'd let Gibbs down after he'd taken the chance on a green, probie changeling.

No, if he had any reason to be nervous around Werth, it was because the former Marine had dislocated his shoulder the last time they'd crossed paths. And Tim wouldn't be caught off guard again.

He forced his attention back to the moment in time to hear Ziva turn to a more brisk, businesslike tone.

"So, where were you last night between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.?"

One relaxed shoulder raised and lowered in a lazy shrug. "Worked the bar ‘til close. Then came up here about half past midnight."

"Is there anyone who can verify that, Corporal?" Tim asked.

"It's just Damon now, remember? Got a medical discharge." The careless smirk didn't quite reach his eyes.

A sliver of sympathy squeezed through Tim.  He remembered what they'd learned about Werth's background. How much he'd wanted to be a Marine. What he'd given up to become one. Tim could relate to how much it sucked to be forced to change his entire life by something beyond his control.

Werth had lost not only his career, but the tight knit clan that was the Marine Special Ops wolf pack.

"I have it on good authority, there is no such thing as an ex-Marine." Ziva's voice again filled with compassion and understanding gave her accent a soothing lilt. It was the first time Tim had ever heard that tone from her. In an odd sort of way, maternal Ziva scared him a lot more than cold-blooded-killer Ziva did. In a psychedelic, Alice in Wonderland sort of way.

A flash of pain crossed Werth's face, then everything eased back into that loose-limbed slouch. For the first time, Tim realized maybe that know-it-all smirk Werth preferred was more about hiding than simple, straight up arrogance.

"The bar was pretty full ‘til last call. Tilly stayed about a half hour after that to clean. Then I came up here, alone, played Halo to unwind then crashed. Did you get all that?"

Werth's hard eyes cut abruptly toward Tim, who was carefully taking down interview notes.

Once again, the urge to squirm under that heavy gaze hit him like a punch to the gut.

Instead, Tim held himself perfectly still, returned the unblinking stare with a blanked expression and murmured, "Yes."

Werth's nostrils flared and that faint, almost secret, smile curled around his lips. Then he shook his head and shifted his attention back to Ziva.

"What's this all about, anyway?"

She pulled up a copy of Kyle Anderrsen's driver's license photo on her phone and showed it to the large shifter.

"Do you recognize this man?"

"Fuck. Yeah. He's that trouble-maker from last night." Werth's eyes scrunched and his lips pinched. "Wait, don't tell me LCIS gets called in because some spoiled, rich shifter gets a little roughed up?"

"Define ‘roughed up' please?"

Now the former Marine straightened and leaned forward in his chair.

"Do I need a lawyer, here?"

"Do you feel you did anything wrong?"

"No. Fuck." He a ran hand through the black strands of hair falling in his eyes. His voice lowered and the rumbling growl was back beneath his words. "He was pissing off the customers. I told him to leave. He took a couple of swings at me. I grabbed him, shook him a little and tossed his ass outside."

"And that was the last time you saw him?"

"Yeah. He was getting into his car, screaming something about his important daddy. That I'd regret it."

Surprise clicked in Tim. "His car? What kind of car?"

"Red BMW. What the fuck is going on?"

"Mr. Anderrsen was found dead this morning." Ziva glanced at Tim before continuing. "Murdered. Apparently by a shifter in wolf form."

"And you think the resident ‘Bane freak lost control and killed him."

The growl was more pronounced now, echoing deep in Tim's stomach. And his was so not the time to wonder why the sensation was not at all unpleasant.

"We do not think anything yet. We are still gathering facts. We were told there was an altercation. We are following up on that lead. Now, what was he doing that was bothering customers? And was there anyone who seemed particularly bothered?"

The Marine's face remained impassive as he scrutinized first Ziva, then Tim. Finally, he leaned back in the chair but the slouch he affected this time was a careless parody of his earlier relaxed sprawl.

"He was demanding to know where to find a killer for hire. Kept saying he knew there was one in Colvin County. Most of the bar's patrons are lone wolves. We tend to take offence when someone is implying we're all low-life criminals."

The smirk took on a little spark of real humor. "Even the ones that are. I could see a couple of the more… impulsive… shifters getting restless. So I stepped in and got rid of him before he really got hurt. He was alive and bitching when he left. I've got a bar full of witnesses that can vouch."

Ziva nodded, then asked, "Did anyone leave shortly after? Could anyone have followed him?"

Damon pursed his lips then shook his head, black hair once again falling into his eyes. Tim most certainly did not have the urge to push it back and run his fingers through it.

"Naw. Everyone hung tight ‘til close."

"And is it possible that he came back later?"

"Not that I saw."

Ziva glanced questioningly at Tim, but he couldn't think of anything else to ask that she hadn't already covered. He closed his notebook and stood with her. Werth followed them to the door.

Once outside on the second story porch, Ziva turned back. "We may have more questions for you later. We ask—"

"Don't leave town. Stay available. Yeah. I remember the drill. Even if last time was a little… hazy."

Ziva nodded in acknowledgment then headed for the car.

Tim hesitated. The big shifter seemed fond of Ziva, but he might not appreciate reassurance or compassion from someone like Tim. Still, he couldn't help wanting to ease the faint lines tightening around Werth's eyes.

"Look, Gibbs doesn't jump to conclusions. You know that. He'll dig ‘til he has the truth. No rush to judgment, like local law enforcement might."

Werth's eyes widened and he straightened to his full height in the doorway. For a second, as the silence stretched, Tim considered a precautionary retreat. Then the lips quirked and the dimple flashed.

"Thanks, Tim."

His genuine appreciation shook the agent more than the angry recriminations he'd been expecting.

"Uh, yeah, um, I've got to…" Tim gestured over his shoulder. From the front of the building, they could hear the rental car roaring to life. Without another word, he turned and took the stairs two at a time.

When he reached the bottom, he couldn't help looking back. The door was already closed, though. And Damon was nowhere to be seen.

In the car, Ziva once again was too impatient to wait for him to see to basic safety procedures.  He was still clicking the seatbelt into place when she roared out onto the road.

Into the quiet, he asked, "You knew it was going to be Werth, didn't you? You and Gibbs smelled him at the scene."

"It was a possibility. We could have been wrong."

Tim held back the disbelieving, hysterical laugh that threatened to bubble up at that. This case was going to mess with his head in so many ways.

*

Damon closed the door as the LCIS agent disappeared down the stairs. He scrubbed his hands over his face and let the wall hold him up for a minute.

He was a suspect. Again

Sure, last time he'd been cleared.

But not before the drug dealers attempting to frame him had shot him full of drugs and left him to take the blame. He'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time and it cost him.

Damon had lost everything. His career. His military pack. His control.

Eighteen months ago his whole world had crashed in a matter of days. The painful memories, usually kept buried deep, refused to be pushed aside this time.

Stationed stateside for a few months after a brutal mission that had earned him a Silver Star, he'd felt more like a loser than a hero. Yeah, he'd managed to rescue three of his men, but he'd failed a fourth. And PFC Stone came home without a leg.

So when he found out a couple of men in the platoon he'd been temporarily assigned to were dealing meth laced with Wolf's Bane to some of the enlisted shifters, his head hadn't exactly been in the right place.

He'd gone after them alone, without thinking things through. He'd managed to get taken by surprise and they'd shot him full of their lethal product.

Most normal drugs and alcohol have a less dramatic effect on a shifter's metabolism than they did on humans. But a little Wolf's Bane fried the system enough to feel the high. Continued use or a large dose had permanent, unpredictable physical and psychological effects. The amount they gave Damon should have been enough to kill him.

They'd intended it to. They'd intended to leave him dead in the lab of an overdose along with a trail of breadcrumbs that made it look like he'd been the mastermind behind the whole operation.

Instead, it left him unconscious for the MPs to find and send to the psych ward at Bethesda. When he woke up, the amount of 'Bane they'd pumped into him had sent him over the edge into a psychotic, paranoia fueled rage. The flashbacks of his last mission had been vicious and insanely real. As far as he was concerned, he'd been back in the war zone and everyone he met was an enemy combatant. One who stood between him and rescuing his men.

He'd broken out of the hospital, intent on saving men he'd already rescued.

Gibbs and his LCIS team had shown up, just as he'd been trying to 'rescue' PFC Stone. Gibbs had tried to talk him down, had almost made sense in the blaze of 'Bane shadowing his head. But McGee's sudden movement had triggered instincts that Damon no longer had had control over.

The fight itself was still a blank, empty few seconds of lost time for him. But he remembered the aftermath. Three men on the ground, him, in wolf form, with his paws on Ziva's shoulders and his teeth at her throat. Her voice had tugged at him, but it was the smells that finally brought him back to himself. Adrenaline had been heavy in the air, pumping out of everybody in the room.

Stone had been anxious, the rest of the patients and trainers were shocked and petrified.

Ziva had been surprisingly calm, Gibbs frustrated. The other agent, DiNozzo, had been pissed. McGee had been an odd mix of terrified and determined. And that was what had, finally, gotten through to him when nothing else had.

Despite the predator function ruling his brain, Damon knew this pack wasn't really the enemy.

That he'd hurt them, scared them, went against everything he believed in about protecting the pack. His own, shifters as a whole and his country.

So he'd shifted back and surrendered. Gone back to the hospital while Gibbs and the rest cleared his name.

But it was too late. The 'Bane had done its damage. He'd been stripped of control. His preternatural senses would trump his common sense and human sensibilities in times of stress.

He'd become a liability. Unpredictable in the field. A danger to be around.

He'd been cleared of charges, received his Silver Star but he'd stilled gotten a medical discharge.

He'd tried to go home, but it didn't work out. Not with his family and not with the pack.

After a couple of months, he'd done them all a favor, cut ties again.  Eventually, he'd found his way to Colvin County, where the outcasts and loners could dwell in peace without stepping on any packs' toes.

But he'd never been packless before. Hadn't realized how much the mental and physical closeness of a pack kept him grounded kept him sane. Never realized how much pack touched and invited touching until he stepped into a world where everyone guarded their personal space with teeth and claws and vicious suspicion.

He was so fucking touch starved that having McGee brush up against his chest had nearly sent him over the edge. He'd wanted to grip the man's shoulders. Rip off the stupid windbreaker and find skin--

"Fuck."

He pulled his hands away from his face and pushed away from the wall. He needed a drink.

But now, even a beer left him at the mercy of his fucking animal brain. He'd just have to settle for coffee and a cold shower.

*

Tony was finishing up the last of the photos as Ducky and the local coroner loaded the body into the van and headed out.

"You guys want a ride back into town?" The sheriff sauntered over to where Gibbs was putting the last of the bagged evidence away.

Tony shifted his attention toward the woods, trying not to eavesdrop on the low voiced conversation taking place a few yards away. Especially when his alpha loosed a low-voiced chuckle.

His teeth ached from the tension in his jaw. He focused so hard on photographing the tag in front of him, that the sound of the sheriff's car door opening took him by surprise.

His eyes darted from the sheriff, starting to load their collected evidence to his alpha, whose lips had quirked up in that sarcastic half smile that Tony secretly adored. That rare expression that made him look all young and carefree. The smile that lied prettily to Tony. That made him hope, for a half a second when sees it aimed his way, that his boss might feel the same way that he does.

Not that Tony admits to feeling anything but admiration and a healthy, respectful fear.

"Wanna' run?" Gibbs asked and Tony can feel the itching of his inner wolf wanting to come out and play. Of course, he knew Gibbs meant for work, not sport. Using the altered skills, strength and instinct to track done clues their human forms had missed.

"Sure, boss."

He wondered if his answering grin gave too much away. In wolf form, he felt closest to Gibbs. Felt most like a true beta.

He ambled back toward his gear and reminded his alpha, "But I didn't get a chance to catch any of the scents off the body."

Tony wished he'd kept his mouth shut as he watched the way the playful smile vanish from the older shifter's face.

"I did. You just concentrate on finding anything out of place."

"Got it boss," he answered quickly, putting away his camera and emptying his pockets.

Tony knew it wasn't necessary. He dated a female shifter in college whose major was quantum meta-physics. She'd explained to him once where their clothes went when they shifted.

It involved words like 'wave function' and 'duality' and 'Schrodinger' and possibly something to do with pets. At one point, there were even equations written on a cocktail napkin.

He hadn't understood a word of it, but she'd had big green eyes and lush curves, so he'd tried to pretend to pay attention. And she had appreciated his effort.

He knew intellectually that anything he shifted with would come back with him. Still, he hated taking the chance.

When he was finished stowing his gear, Tony glanced up to see Gibbs helping the sheriff pack the last of the collected evidence into the trunk. The broad-shouldered lawman was leaning in too close to his boss. Again.

Deciding not to wait for Gibbs, Tony cleared his mind and allowed the shift sensation to cascade throughout his body. There wasn't any pain, just a little discomfort as his entire body rearranged itself in a matter of seconds.

As soon as he had four paws on the ground and his vision had shifted to black and white, Tony sat back on his haunches and let his tongue loll out. With laser focus, his attention zeroed in on his alpha and remained firmly attached as Gibbs shook hands one last time with the strange human.

When the car pulled away, Gibbs finally returned the attention. As soon as the blue eyes met his and the smile shifted back onto his alpha's face, Tony's whole body went on high alert, his nerves hot with expectation. A tremor of anticipation shivered through him as the older shifter paced with quick, easy grace across the crime scene.

"Eager to run, huh, DiNozzo?"

The question was punctuated with a quick ruffle of the dark brown fur on his neck and Tony shivered again, leaning into the touch, following the hand as it moved.

"Alright, Tony, alright," Gibbs laughed and brushed the hand up behind his ears for a good scratch. Tony sighed and closed his eyes, allowing the pure pleasure of the other shifter's touch to roll through him while he had the chance.

Gibbs laughed again and lifted his hand, taking a step back. Tony couldn't help the short whine at the loss of touch, then ducked his head at the undignified sound.

"Easy, DiNozzo, give me a minute and we'll go run."

He took a couple of more steps back and then his form shimmered and shifted until a large wolf stood in front of Tony, his thick grey coat almost silver in the afternoon sun. The blue eyes so familiar, Tony would know them no matter what form they looked out at him from.

He padded over to the larger, older wolf and lowered his body, arching his back to look up at his alpha with respect. The grey wolf stood tall, ears lifted as he looked unblinkingly back.

After a moment, Gibbs lowered his head slightly and brushed his muzzle against Tony's then turned and began to systematically search the scene. With the all-seeing eyes turned away from him, the brown wolf allowed the tremor of pleasure to roll through him. His alpha was always more affectionate in fur form. And Tony had to fight harder not to give too much away when the instinctive animal was in the fore.

Shaking off the unproductive thoughts, he took the other side of the scene and began to search as well.

There were scents of several unfamiliar humans, varying in degree and age. Most likely joggers and hikers in the area, but he couldn't detect any other shifters. A systematic search yielded nothing missed by their human forms and the two wolves met on the edge of the clearing, near where the trail wandered back into the more heavily wooded area.

Gibbs looked at him, huffed a single amused sounding bark then nudged hard against Tony's shoulder before taking off at a run into the trees.

Not needing to be invited twice, Tony yipped in response and gave chase. In D.C., they rarely found time to let their animals run loose in such natural, wild surroundings and the two wolves made the most of it. Darting and scampering around trees and undergrowth, playfully nudging and circling each other, tongues lolling and breath panting in relaxed pleasure.

But the pleasant interlude was cut short when Gibbs stopped abruptly, ears perked in attention. Tony followed his lead, listening intently until his ears caught the sound of their rental car approaching. McGeek and Ziva Knieval had returned.  It was time to get back to work.

Tony stayed close, trotting shoulder to shoulder as they made their way back to the center of the crime scene. They reached the spot where they'd left their gear as they car pulled into sight through the trees.

By the time the car had shut off, he and his alpha had already transformed.